Kather­ine Jenk­ins

MY BEST FRIEND POLLY IS TOO YOUNG TO DIE. WE’LL FIGHT THIS CAN­CER TO­GETHER NO MAT­TER WHAT IT TAKES

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

KATHER­INE I can’t pin­point ex­actly when I first met Polly, but I do re­mem­ber my ini­tial im­pres­sion be­ing that she was very pretty and had a great voice. It was around 2001, and I was fin­ish­ing my four-year de­gree at the Royal Acad­emy of Mu­sic in Lon­don. To earn some ex­tra cash, I’d set up a lit­tle busi­ness as a vo­cal coach and Polly was one of my pupils. She was part of a girl band try­ing to se­cure a record­ing con­tract and they hired me for some ex­tra tuition. All the girls were bub­bly and fun, but Polly and I clicked straight away. We’d go out par­ty­ing and club­bing, and back then we didn’t have a care in the world.

It must have been a year or so later that I got my own record deal. Polly’s band had fiz­zled out af­ter a split with its man­age­ment, but she couldn’t have been more thrilled for me. My world changed al­most overnight and that’s when I re­ally be­gan to value our friend­ship. Polly is very pro­tec­tive, loyal and truth­ful and I could trust her to tell me if some­thing wasn’t a good idea.

As my life went into or­bit, she kept me grounded. I was trav­el­ling a lot, but we emailed and texted — I knew I could call her any time and she could do the same with me.

I was on tour in De­cem­ber 2005 when she rang to say that she had been di­ag­nosed with cer­vi­cal can­cer. She didn’t look or sound ill — it was just un­be­liev­able. And of course the word ‘can­cer’ fright­ens the life out of me be­cause I had watched my fa­ther die of lung can­cer when I was 15. But he had been nearly 70, and Polly was just 24. She was too young; she had too much to live for.

My head was spin­ning, but with­out real­is­ing it, you draw on your past ex­pe­ri­ence at times like that. I had ob­served how other peo­ple had be­haved around my mum. Not ev­ery­body knows what to say when it comes to can­cer, and some­times they choose to say noth­ing rather than risk say­ing the wrong thing. But that si­lence can be fright­en­ing and iso­lat­ing. My mum had needed peo­ple who were go­ing to be there for her, and that was what Polly needed, too. So I told her we were go­ing to deal with this, what­ever it took.

Wit­ness­ing her go through surgery, then chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy was hor­ren­dous. She moved back to her par­ents’ home and I’d go up to see her there when­ever I could.

With that first round of treat­ment she didn’t lose her hair, but she was told there was a strong chance the ra­di­a­tion would send her body into early menopause. She has al­ways wanted to have chil­dren, so that was a bit­ter blow. Polly has never had a ‘poor me’ men­tal­ity. She’s fought her can­cer head on, com­pletely over­haul­ing her diet and life­style. We both be­lieve pas­sion­ately in the power of the mind and I’m con­vinced her can-do ap­proach played a huge role in her ini­tial re­cov­ery. The treat­ment worked and for more than three years she was can­cer-free. But then, in 2010, she found a lump in her neck. It was a sec­ondary tu­mour and this time her on­col­o­gist told her that al­though she could have more treat­ment, the can­cer was ul­ti­mately in­cur­able. She called me from the hos­pi­tal with the news. Nei­ther of us cried. We were too stunned For a while af­ter that sec­ond di­ag­no­sis, Polly de­cided to refuse con­ven­tional treat­ment and that pet­ri­fied me. But she ex­plained that she had felt so un­well with chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy the first time and, hav­ing re­searched the ef­fects of nu­tri­tion on can­cer and the ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion, she wanted to give those a try. I re­alised my job was to re­spect her de­ci­sion and back her.

Polly has turned her own ex­pe­ri­ences into an in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive force. The book she has co-writ­ten on cop­ing with can­cer is just what I wish I’d been able to turn to when my fa­ther be­came ill. The other day my hair­dresser started talk­ing about how she fol­lows Polly on Twit­ter and swears by her recipes. When I told her Polly was my best friend, she couldn’t be­lieve it. So I might be the one with celebrity sta­tus, but Polly is the true star.

In the show­busi­ness world I oc­cupy much of the time, ev­ery­thing can be­come mag­ni­fied and slightly fake, but when I feel things get­ting ridicu­lous, all I have to do is think of Polly. When I ran the Lon­don Marathon this year (for Macmil­lan Can­cer Sup­port) and pulled a ten­don in my knee af­ter the first hour, it was think­ing of Polly that kept me go­ing. My dis­com­fort was tem­po­rary; she is con­stantly push­ing through pain bound­aries.

There are a lot of things I can’t do for Polly, but the one thing I can give her is nor­mal­ity. She comes to stay with me and we’ll get glammed up just like old times and go out for din­ner or to a con­cert, then we’ll have a night in, watch­ing box sets. Most of the time, Polly man­ages to be amaz­ingly up­beat, but re­cent test re­sults were ter­ri­bly up­set­ting and we had a few very black days. I wanted to tell her it would all be okay but that’s not what she needs to hear. You have to keep it true, so the only thing I can say as her best friend is that I love her and, what­ever hap­pens, I’ll be here for her.

POLLY Out­wardly th­ese days, I am un­recog­nis­able from the Polly that Kather­ine first met — and she has changed pretty rad­i­cally, too. But the chem­istry that ce­mented our friend­ship more than a decade ago is still there be­neath the sur­face. We’re both am­bi­tious and driven, but at the same time we’re chilled. That is why we un­der­stand what makes each other tick.

My early 20s were all about chas­ing my dreams and hav­ing a good time. Like Kather­ine, I come from a sta­ble and loving fam­ily, but one that has no con­nec­tions with show­busi­ness; my par­ents run an agri­cul­tural com­pany. When, af­ter leav­ing school, I told them I wanted to try to be­come a pro­fes­sional singer, they backed me all the way. I moved to Lon­don and did a year at a per­form­ing-arts school be­fore join­ing a girl band. Our man­age­ment com­pany hired Kather­ine to bring our voices on and, al­though she was our teacher, it was also clear she was a party girl like us! Af­ter her lessons, we would go for a few drinks, then club­bing till 3 or 4am. The band even­tu­ally fiz­zled out, but Kather­ine be­came a per­ma­nent fix­ture in my life.

Kather­ine’s suc­cess came out of the blue. It was ob­vi­ous from the mo­ment we met that she had an in­cred­i­ble voice, and a friend who saw her per­form sug­gested she make a demo tape. Months later, she was of­fered a record deal and sud­denly her face was on bill­boards and TV, which was weird but won­der­ful. She started trav­el­ling a lot, but was al­ways in touch by email or text, and when­ever she was back in town, we would get to­gether. In late 2005, I started to feel un­well. I was tired all the time and putting on weight, which I thought was prob­a­bly down to eat­ing badly, drink­ing too much and not look­ing af­ter my­self. I went for a check-up and had a long- over­due smear test and that was when my world im­ploded: I had a 3cm ma­lig­nant tu­mour on my cervix, which had spread to the sur­round­ing lymph nodes.

My mum was with me for the di­ag­no­sis, and we drove home crying, speech­less with shock. I told my fam­ily, then texted Kather­ine. She called straight away. She was clearly up­set, but she didn’t fall apart. She said that I was not to worry and that we would get through this; her calm­ness filled me with con­fi­dence.

I had key­hole surgery to re­move 13 lymph nodes from my pelvic area, fol­lowed by chemo­ther­apy and ra­dio­ther­apy to shrink the can­cer on my cervix. It was aw­ful.

I spent most of the time with my head down the toi­let or asleep. I didn’t re­ally want to see any­one, but Kather­ine was al­ways there at the end of the phone when I needed cheer­ing up. She is a great racon­teur — but sen­si­tive, too — and she knew just how to take my mind off things.

By mid-2006, the tu­mour had gone and I started to get my life back. But hav­ing can­cer had changed ev­ery­thing: it be­came vi­tal to me to make what I did worth­while. I re­mem­ber one of my first pub­lic-speak­ing en­gage­ments at a fundrais­ing event in Cam­bridge. I was very ner­vous but Kather­ine drove all the way up from Lon­don in hor­rific traf­fic to be there for me. She is my big­gest sup­porter and I know there is noth­ing she wouldn’t do for me.

Once you re­cover from can­cer, it is easy to con­vince your­self that it was just a blip that you have over­come. The shock when it re­turned in 2010 was one of my dark­est mo­ments. Again, Kather­ine was among the first peo­ple I called. Telling peo­ple you have can­cer is ex­haust­ing. In one sense, you feel more up­set for them than your­self be­cause you know it must be so hard for them to see what you are go­ing through. Kather­ine doesn’t of­fer any plat­i­tudes — there’s too much hon­esty be­tween us for that. But she does make me feel that I will al­ways be all right — with or with­out can­cer.

In a way, I’ve turned my can­cer into a ca­reer. I qual­i­fied as a holis­tic health coach, de­vised my own recipes, co-wrote a book on liv­ing with can­cer and have con­trib­uted to nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles and TV pro­grammes. So, al­though hav­ing can­cer has been tough, I wouldn’t be who I am with­out it.

I don’t try to im­pose my diet on Kather­ine, al­though I have tried to wean her off Diet Coke (she says it’s her one vice!). Mostly, when we get to­gether, our pri­or­ity is hav­ing a good time. We’re both girly girls — we love to share clothes and make-up and can never re­sist some lux­ury pam­per­ing; she took me to a spa af­ter my last course of chemo­ther­apy.

Right now, I’m com­ing to terms with the fact that the can­cer is back in my lungs. I’ve had a long cry and a big sulk, but I am over that and I’m crack­ing on with my to-do list. I lost my long dark hair last year as a re­sult of my treat­ment, and nor­mally, when I go out or have my pic­ture taken, I reach for one of my wigs. But Kather­ine has been telling me that I am gor­geous just as I am. She be­lieves that I should be proud of the way I look and em­brace it as a state­ment of what I have been through.

That’s why, in the pho­to­graph for this ar­ti­cle, you are see­ing the gen­uine me. As al­ways, I trea­sure Kather­ine’s feed­back, and it feels great to be keep­ing it real.

For more from Polly, visit pol­ly­no­ble.com; The Can­cer Jour­ney by Dr Pam Evans, Polly No­ble and Nicholas Hull- Mal­ham, with fore­word by Kather­ine Jenk­ins, is avail­able from thecan­cer­jour­ney­book.com

For­ever friends Polly, 31, and Kather­ine, 33, have been best friends since 2001. Far left: Kather­ine with her dance part­ner, Mark Bal­las, on last year’s Strictly Come Danc­ing. Left: The girls in 2010

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